- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2016

While Washington’s foreign policy machine is focused elsewhere, the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere may be quietly inching to a close as Colombia’s government and leftist FARC rebels push to meet a self-imposed deadline for peace.

But even as a major disarmament deal is expected to stick by the March 23 target date, major hurdles lie in wait and analysts express fears that the deal may trigger an era of organized crime and violence in areas that have been under rebel control for the past 50 years.

“The hardest part at this point is not reaching the final deal, but what comes afterwards,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on the negotiations playing out behind closed doors in Havana since 2012.

Despite numerous disappointments in the past, there is a growing international consensus that Colombia is on the verge of a breakthrough.

The U.N. Security Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution to set up a political mission to monitor and verify a proposed cease-fire, noting that it was acting at the joint request of both the government in Bogota and the rebels. In a rare move for the often-divided council, all 15 members co-sponsored the resolution, The Associated Press reported.

“Finally, our continent will have life without conflict,” Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin told reporters in New York.

The resolution establishes a political mission for 12 months, and the council can consider an extension if asked by the two parties. The mission will be made up of unarmed observers from Latin American and Caribbean nations.

In an interview, Ms. Felbab-Brown pointed to signs that mid- and lower-level operatives of the FARC — the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — are not entirely in sync with the guerrilla group’s commanders when it comes to the peace deal’s parameters.

While the FARC leadership appears to have embraced the negotiations as the ticket to achieving eventual political legitimacy in Colombia’s government, the hard reality is that “you may have individual FARC subcommanders whose sole purpose or goal is to make money from drugs.”

Other regional analysts have echoed that concern. The FARC, originally founded as a Marxist peasant insurgency in Colombia, is believed to control some 60 percent of the nation’s illicit cocaine trade and will find it hard to relinquish its main source of income in any peace deal.

One big question is whether Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who staked his 2014 re-election campaign on reaching peace with the FARC, has a post-conflict plan that can effectively and quickly integrate rebel-controlled areas into the nation’s social and economic fabric. Mr. Santos will brief President Obama in person when he travels to Washington next week for ceremonies marking 15 years of U.S. support for Colombia.

Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said uncertainty stems in part from “secrecy around the deal.”

Both sides are pursuing an agreement to end the war, which has killed 220,000 people and displaced millions across Colombia’s countryside since 1964.

The fear, Mr. Sabatini said, is that once a final agreement is signed, the Santos government may lack the resources and political capital to prevent parts of Colombia from being swallowed by the sort of criminal anarchy gripping other corners of Latin America, which dealt in the past with violent leftist insurgencies.

He pointed specifically to El Salvador, where a 1992 deal between the government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) ended more than a decade of civil war, and to Guatemala, where 36 years of internal conflict came to a close through a 1996 deal with a group known as Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).

Both nations are part of Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” which has made headlines during recent years for recording some of the globe’s highest homicide rates, surging rural organized criminal activity and drug-related violence.

“What happened in El Salvador and Guatemala is that you had a negotiated peace with former guerrillas and paramilitaries that simply have chronically failed to reintegrate into peaceful civilian life,” said Mr. Sabatini. “Instead, they’ve become mafia power brokers, who either kept their weapons or turned them in and eventually bought new ones.”

Others argue that in the years since Colombia was all but brought to its knees by civil war and drug trafficking in the 1990s, the government has succeeded — with sustained U.S. support — in building a far more robust and far less corrupt economic and political system than exists in any of the Northern Triangle nations.

Jose Antonio Ocampo, a former high-level U.N. official who headed a 20-member post-conflict commission on rural development for the Santos government, said Mr. Santos, a former defense minister, is in a far better position to succeed in making peace with the rebels.

“The government does have generally good plans for rural development, and it’s not a very costly initiative,” Mr. Ocampo said in an interview. “I am confident they can put in place an ambitious rural development strategy that will support the reintegration process” of FARC-controlled areas.

High expectations

Others see a more difficult path, even if a peace deal is struck, especially if the payoff from peace is slow in coming.

“It’s going to be difficult going forward,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, who heads the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “There will, I think, be a need to show people, in conflict zones in particular, that the signing of the peace accord has made a real difference in their lives. Expectations will be very high.”

The first order of business is striking a deal, which is widely considered more likely than at any other time in decades. How the deal will play politically in Colombia is one of the big questions.

The nation’s conservatives — led by former President Alvaro Uribe — argue that the Santos government has made dangerous concessions to the FARC, offering what amounts to legal immunity to guerrillas accused of atrocities during the five-decade conflict in exchange for a promise by the rebel group to lay down its arms.

Mr. Uribe, who served as president from 2002 to 2010 and became a senator in 2014, ramped up his public criticism of the deal after news in September that the Santos government and FARC leaders had settled on a formula to punish human rights once a final deal is in place.

Under the agreement, according to The Associated Press, rebels who confess abuses to special peace tribunals, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive a maximum eight years of labor under unspecified conditions, but not prison time. The tribunals also will judge Colombian military war crimes. Combatants caught lying will face penalties of up to 20 years in prison.

Although the FARC has existed on Washington’s official Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997, the Obama administration has thrown its weight behind the peace talks and has been quick to praise the September agreement as a breakthrough toward a final peace deal.

Many in the Obama administration say the Colombia breakthrough is linked to Mr. Obama’s own pursuit of a diplomatic detente with the leftist Castro regime in Cuba, which has long backed the FARC.

The Santos government has promised to put any final deal to a referendum by Colombian voters. It’s unclear when the vote will be held, although outside observers generally see it as a small hurdle.

A bigger uncertainty is whether conservatives aligned with Mr. Uribe may attempt to gut the Santos government’s rural development and reintegration program once the deal is in place — particularly if a conservative wins the Colombian presidency when Mr. Santos steps down in 2018.

“There is real fear that Uribe and the conservative side will try to derail the process,” said Ms. Felbab-Brown. “They believe the Santos government is giving too much away and that the only way to deal with the FARC is to defeat them on the battlefield.”

But she also noted that the prospect of a conservative win in 2018 could be prompting FARC leaders to sign a final deal during the months ahead while Mr. Santos is still firmly in charge.

One more complication, Ms. Felbab-Brown said, is the likelihood of serious resistance from the Colombia military, whose budget has long depended on the conflict with the guerrillas.

“If there is no more FARC to be killed, the military budget will go down,” she said. “Along with people getting laid off, many who’ve been promised pensions and social privileges associated with their service will probably lose those things.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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